Do you needa digital detox?
We now spend more time on our devices than we do asleep — are we all addicts? Lucy Holden tries a digital detox
In a remote hut in the Brecon Beacons, UK, a group of strangers is sitting in a circle and dropping iPhones, one by one, into a black trunk. It looks like the start of a crazy theme party. It’s actually rehab – for phone addicts. Young professionals who spend all their time on smartphones, tablets and laptops have started paying people to take their devices away from them. They are consciously uncoupling from Facebook, turning off Twitter and going cold turkey on Google+.
Digital detoxing was the ‘It’ thing to do in America last year and now it’s moved to the UK, sold as a cure for a generation obsessed with being online. Recently, the communications watchdog Ofcom revealed that Britons spend nearly nine hours a day engaged in various forms of media consumption, an increase of two hours since 2010. By using two types of media at once – such as tweeting while watching TV – we can cram 11 hours of it into our day.
Mobile phones are no longer a luxury, they’re a necessity. We look at our phones roughly every six minutes, which means we are checking texts, emails, social media and, often, nothing, 150 times a day. One in five young adults admits that they have checked their phone during very intimate moments. Half of us say we feel anxious if we are separated from our phones. We’re the generation jaded by FOMO – fear of missing out.
Are we in need of a digital detox? All I know is that my iPhone never leaves my side. I check my emails before I get out of bed in the morning and when I get back into bed at night. I hear ringtones in my dreams.
UK-based Unplugged Weekend is the newest company to cash in on the detox trend. It runs meditative weekends where it encourages a generation of phone addicts to think about their usage. A ticket costs £200 (about Dh1,200) and includes all food,
activities and accommodation in a rugged scout hut in the hills.
Most of the scores of people gathered in the Brecon Beacons are media types, but there’s also a student, an orthodontist, a trainee barrister, a diving instructor and several teachers. There’s also a man in his forties called Angus, described as a “professional festival-attender” by his friend Jodie, who told him the weekend had “hippy vibes” because she wanted a lift toWales.
On the first night, as it is announced that the digital detox is to commence, he puts his hand in the air to ask: “Sorry, what are we supposed to be detoxing from?” When he’s told, he says that’s fine because he doesn’t even own a mobile phone.
The weekend schedule is heavily geared towards ‘mindfulness’. We are woken at 7am for yoga and meditation, sitting first on sticky mats for downward dog poses, then moving to a cosy room decked with Indian rugs and lit with candles that smell of potpourri. Cross-legged on the floor, we are told to imagine that we are a branch floating down a river. The session ends with a series of Oms.
When we ‘share our experience’, it becomes obvious that we really do have a problem switching off. We’ve got low attention spans and many find it difficult to clear their heads. “I find it worrying not having something to worry about,” Tracey says. “Pesky social conditioning.”
Expectations of bosses and clients are what people are most anxious about – we feel as though we need to be contactable 24/7. Tracey, who used to work for a top music magazine, says she was once nearly fired because she’d gone out in the evening and missed a call telling her Amy Winehouse had died.
Because we aren’t used to being without our phones we panic like parents who think they’ve lost their child at the supermarket. But we miss them for different reasons. Ammy, who writes poetry straight on to her iPhone, misses Siri, the device’s intelligent personal assistant, which acts as a scribe, typing Ammy’s words as she speaks into the handset. Tilly, excited about the afternoon’s ‘laughter yoga’ session, shouts “Selfies!” before realising that taking them is no longer possible. Jodie missed her phone’s ability to function as a torch on the way back to the van the night before. “You realise that your phone is, like, a 21stcentury penknife, man,” she says.
Lucy Pearson, 26, and Vikki Bates, 28, set up UnpluggedWeekend after meeting on a retreat in the Sahara desert earlier this year. While being forced to go phoneless because there was no signal, they realised it was
liberating. They came home, quit their jobs in advertising and within a week were having their first business meeting over beanburgers at Nando’s.
“We wanted to do a version of what we did in the Sahara,” says Pearson.
“We realised that the differentiating thing about our experience was that we didn’t have our phones and nobody was chasing us for anything,” says Bates. “You’re so caught up in the stress of life and you’re thinking all the time but not about the important stuff— like whether you’re happy.” a social situation I get my phone out and pretend to play a game or reply to all these text messages I’m supposed to have got, but because you can’t do that here you actually talk to people.”
Tracey says she feels like she has a lot more time. “The first thing I do in the morning is check Facebook in bed, then I get distracted and I can be on it for hours without even realising,” she says. Someone else admits to hating going on Facebook. “I try not to because it makes me depressed but I do and then I hate myself for doing it— it’s like self-harm.”
Monika Pawlowska is running the mindfulness workshop. We stand in a silent circle for what feels like a month as she walks around the group, inviting us to look into each other’s eyes, love one another and “let this person enter inside of you”. Pawlowska, who once spent 10 minutes eating a raisin to practise mindfulness, tells us how we hide behind our digital screens. “We put smiley faces in texts or write LOL,” she says, “but it doesn’t mean we’re happy. Who is really laughing out loud on the bus? Not so many people.”
By the end of the weekend some people aren’t sure they want their
‘Any time I’m anxious in a social situation I get my phone out, but here you actually talk to people.’
“I used to think in Facebook statuses,” adds Pearson.
During the weekend we realise how refreshing all this is. We sit outside and talk about everything from divorce to dating, Biffy Clyro to Blondie, without one person being distracted by the buzz of their phone. “You realise how much of a social barrier having a phone is,” says Tilly, who has just finished her first year at Cambridge. “Any time I’m anxious in phones back. The only real emergency was when the model was late for our life-drawing class and we couldn’t call her to ask whether one of us was going to have to strip off instead.
Katie, who works in television, says she feels “really anxious” about getting her phone back. “I don’t want it,” she says as we sit nervously around the black box for the ‘giving-back ceremony’. “I’ve got a sinking feeling, like there’s going to be some really bad news when I turn it on.”
I’ve got the feeling that a tsunami of communication will drown me in a sea of emails, texts and missed calls and I will have to spend the next two days trying to catch up. It’s only after I’ve left that I realise that not having our phones has meant we haven’t swapped numbers or even surnames. We might never contact each other again.
Back at home, I find myself being appalled by how many screens I’m surrounded by on the Tube and sit smugly staring into space. I become one of those people who tells others off for being on Facebook all the time. “You really should go on a digital detox,” I tell my boyfriend. “Did you know we look at our phones 150 times a day?”
“You told me before you went,” he says. “Do you want to order the Chinese or shall I?”
I tell him I’ll use the app. It’s quicker.
Activities such as laughter yoga are a part of the detox weekend